Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Birth of a Loaf

Cavaillon, the melon capital of France (and of the world, according to the local melon fraternity), is a market town of some 23,000 inhabitants, about a thirty-minute drive from Avignon. By day, it's a lively, crowded place. Cars prowl the streets in search of a parking spot, housewives sniff and prod the glistening piles of fruit and vegetables laid out on sidewalk stands shaded by striped awnings, cafe regulars study newspapers over their morning beers as dogs sidle between the tables hoping to find a fallen croissant. The sounds of laughter, vigorous argument, and les top hits of Radio Vaucluse burst out through open doors and windows.

That was how I knew Cavaillon, and how I always thought of it, until I was invited to take a look behind the scenes of the Auzet bakery by the patron himself. It was to be a working visit. I wanted to see bakers in action. I wanted to witness mounds of dough being transformed into loaves. I wanted to run my fingers through the flour, squeeze a warm boule or two, and generally soak up the atmosphere.

That was no problem, Gerard Auzet told me. I could have the freedom of the bakery while it was still calm and uncrowded. He suggested that I turn up for work, like everyone else, at four a.m. He could guarantee I'd have no trouble parking.

Cavaillon at four on that August morning was cool and ghostly. There were no cars, no noise, no people, no hint of the heat that would come with the morning sun. I was aware of hearing sounds one seldom hears in a busy town: the ticking of my car's engine as it cooled, the wailing of a lovelorn cat, theclick of my own footsteps. I walked past shuttered stores and groups of cafe chairs and tables that had been chained up on the pavement for the night. It felt strange to have the street to myself.

Gerard was waiting for me at the end of the cours Bournissac, standing in a pool of light outside the entrance to his bakery. He was more cheerful than any man had a right to be at that time of the morning.

"We've already started," he said. "But you haven't missed much. Come on in."

It was still too early for the addict's fix, the warm and heavenly whiff of just-baked bread. That would come in an hour or so, filling the bakery, drifting out through the door, causing nostrils to twitch in anticipation. The very thought of it made me hungry.

For the first time, I saw the bakery in a state of undress, the shelves bare. By six a.m. those shelves would be filling up with loaves--tall and thick, long and slender, plump and round, plain and fancy, whole wheat, rye, bran, flavored with garlic or Roquefort cheese, studded with olives or walnuts--the twenty-one varieties that are baked and sold each day. (If none of these is exactly what you want, the Auzet bakers can also supply made-to-order breads; these include bouillabaisse bread, saffron bread, onion bread, apricot bread, and, for those who like nibbling monograms, personalized bread rolls. You name it, they bake it.)

Gerard led me past the naked shelves and down a ramp that took us into the baking area, a large, airy room, bright white under the fluorescent lights. In one corner was a dough-kneading bowl the size of an infants' paddling pool, and fifty-kilo (110-pound) sacks of flour, from the ultrafine to the coarser, almost gritty (stone-ground); against the walls, stainless steel three-decker ovens six feet tall; between the ovens, steel work tables on which roughly formed boules of dough had been arranged in neat lines. There was no decoration, no stool to sit on, no concession to comfort, nothing that wasn't necessary for the making of bread. It was a functional room, saved from sterility by the earthy, reassuring smell of flour, and by the smiles and whistling of the bakers who were working the early shift, from four a.m. to noon.

That morning there were three of them, dressed in white T-shirts and shorts, their fingers and hands already pale with a dusting of flour. They started to work while I watched. I was at first surprised, then fascinated.

I was surprised because I had always thought that the standard loaves were formed mechanically, by some kind of molding process. I imagined a conveyor belt with dough going in at one end and baguettes coming out at the other--baguettes of identical size, identical weight, identical color, identical markings. I'm sure there are bread factories where this is exactly what happens, but it's not the way they do things at Auzet.

Every loaf is formed by hand, faconnage a la main, and it's a wonderful sight to behold. The preweighed lumps of dough (250 grams per baguette--a little more than half a pound) are taken, one by one, and slapped, rolled, squeezed, folded, and tweaked until they assume the familiar shape--if not yet the familiar color--of a loaf you would recognize on the shelf. It's like high-speed sculpture. The shaping of each loaf takes no more than thirty seconds, and after watching a dozen or so, you would swear that there are no differences between one loaf and the next. But of course, there are: the tiny variations, marks of humanity, that distinguish handmade objects from those turned out by machine.

The variations are a little easier to spot at the next stage of the loaf's birth, when the decorative touches are added. With the classic baguette, for example, you will find a series of diagonal stripes along the top surface of the loaf. At Auzet, these are made by hand. They start as gashes, swift stabs with what I originally thought must be a special tool--the baker's friend--used only by the pros. When I asked to take a look at one, I saw that it was a sliver of tin clipped from a can, sharp and shiny from years of use.

In a matter of minutes, twenty lumps of dough had become twenty baguettes. After each had been given its stripes, it was put on a length of flour-dusted canvas that had been corrugated to separate one loaf from the next. When the batch was completed, it was slid into the oven on a long wooden board.

By the time the first contingent of baguettes came out of the ovens, it was about four-thirty. The loaves were golden, some slightly darker at each end. Baking had caused the gashes to widen and fill in until they looked like indentations that might have been made in the crust by a finger applied horizontally across the loaf.

Gerard took a baguette from the batch and held it to his nose, much as a sommelier might check a cork. Then he turned the baguette over and tapped the flat underside two or three times, making a sound like a muffled drumbeat. "That's one way of testing the bread," he said. "You can hear when it's been baked correctly."

He passed me the loaf, and I gave it a novice's tap. Now that warm air had expanded the dough, the baguette felt light, almost hollow, rather than dense. I gave it a squeeze: firm, but yielding. I gave it a sniff. Mmmm. It made me wonder what time bakers had breakfast. I hoped it was soon.

This particular loaf, the standard, slim, everyday baguette, is best eaten young. It stays fresh for four or five hours, no more. ("Too good to last," as Gerard would tell you.) And so it's not unusual for a baker to see many of his morning customers turn up again in the afternoon, when they come by to collect their dinner baguettes. Larger loaves stay fresh longer, as do the denser breads like pain de campagne, pain au son, and pain complet. But the baguette remains the most popular loaf, and indeed one of the enduring symbols of France.

Some years ago, this sacred object came under attack. Certain unscrupulous supermarkets, in an effort to seduce the trusting housewife and undercut local bakers, brought out the one-franc baguette. It was an inferior specimen, bien sur, a miserable copy, but less than half the price of the real thing.

The supermarkets should have known better. Nobody trifles with the bakers of France, and war broke out at once. Aux armes, les boulangers! Independent bakers, united against a common foe, counterattacked. Delegations were sent to Paris. Ministers were petitioned. Protests were lodged in high places. The honor of French bread, the very fabric of French life, was at stake.

Finally, a group of bakers (among them Roger Auzet, Gerard's father) came up with a method of identifying bread that had been made in the traditional way with traditional ingredients. It was a kind of trademark, a guarantee of superior quality. Banette was the chosen name, and you will see it today displayed on bags and signs in every boulangerie where proper bread is made.

By five a.m., the Auzet bakers were in overdrive, working with extraordinary speed and precision--rolling and shaping the dough, slashing away with their miniature daggers, sliding the batches into the oven, thumping the oven doors shut. By the end of the day, more than a thousand loaves and petits pains would be formed, baked, and sold.

It was just after six when Gerard felt we deserved our breakfast. Leaving the bakers to their noble work, we went up the ramp and into the public part of the Auzet establishment, which over the years has become an informal mixture of shop, cafe, and art gallery. There are chairs and marble tables along one wall where you can have coffee and a croissant still glowing from the warm breath of the oven. Posters by local artists, photographs, and mementos share wall space with shelves lined with bottles of champagne, pots of homemade jams and syrups, baskets of almond biscuits, flasks of truffle-scented olive oil.

And then there's the bread--a panorama of bread, stretching for perhaps twenty feet behind the counter, bread arranged according to type and size, varying in color from pale gold to a deep chocolate brown, a display as tanned and tightly packed as rows of sunbathers on a Riviera beach.

Once the shelves are filled, tables and chairs are set out on the pavement. It's taken for granted that the sun will shine all day, just as it has been doing for the past three months. Outdoor blinds and shutters are folded back from the display window, and the first soft gray light of dawn seeps into the shop. The door is fixed open. Chez Auzet is ready for business.

Six-fifteen, and the hollow feeling of being up so early begins to disappear, thanks to a cafe creme and a warm breakfast roll spread with almost-white butter and dipped into the coffee, a messy but delicious combination of tastes and textures.

The first customer of the day appears, trailing behind him a large paper sack. He is from the Hotel du Parc at the end of the street and, this being August, the hotel is full. He leaves with a basket of croissants and a bulging sack of baguettes. Almost before he's out of the door, the gaps on the shelf are filled with more bread.

More customers arrive, the early-morning regulars, and they observe the daily ritual of handshakes and multiple kisses and enquiries after each other's health. The young women behind the counter wrap each purchase in a twist of paper with a dexterous turn of the wrist. Gerard circulates among his clients and rearranges a couple of loaves that have tilted sideways on the shelf. Symmetry restored to his satisfaction, he disappears down the ramp to commune with the ovens.

For him, it will be a long day. The early-morning batch is the first of many, and while a second shift of bakers will take over at noon, Gerard will stay until closing time, around six. He'll drive home to Menerbes, have dinner with his family, get to bed around ten, and be up again at three the next morning. I ask him how he does it. "You get used to it," he says. But I think there's more to it than that. I think you have to have baker's genes.

Flour in the Blood

When Marcel Pagnol wrote "Je suis ne dans le petrin"--I was born in the dough trough--he might have been describing any one of four generations of the Auzet family. For more than a hundred years, the Auzet men have been bakers.

Unfortunately, history in Provence is sometimes not passed on with as much detail or accuracy as one might wish. But we do have an idea of how it was to work as a baker during the second half of the nineteenth century, when Great-grandfather Auzet, born in 1845, was a young man.

His nickname was "L'Ortolan," although nobody knows why. The ortolan is a bird, a bunting, once much loved by gourmets until it became a protected species.

It is tiny, no more than a mouthful of a bird, and it is hard to find any immediate resemblance to Great-grandfather Auzet. He is remembered as un homme robuste, broad-shouldered and muscular, who wore his baker's apron slung beneath his belly (an impressive belly, by all accounts, described in appropriate baking terms as the brioche croissante).

He was a traveling baker, making his way along the backcountry roads from farm to farm and village to village throughout the Luberon with his mule and his cart. By his side was a large jug filled with eau de vie to ward off the chill of the winter mistral, and a generous supply of precious and all-important levain. This is the starter, a mixture of natural yeasts and other micro-organisms. It takes time to make, sometimes as much as twenty days. But it is the heart and backbone of good bread, the element of fermentation that, when added to dough, causes it to rise and gives it lightness and flavor. It is one of the oldest examples in the world of gastronomic magic.

With his levain and his skill, Great-grandfather Auzet would stop at each farm on his route, and turn the farmer's flour into a batch of bread before moving on to his next call. In villages, he would use the communal oven. Wherever he went, he brought un peu de bonheur, leaving behind him a trail of warm and aromatic kitchens. Not surprisingly, he was a popular visitor.

Excerpted from
Confessions of a French Baker: Breadmaking Secrets, Tips, and Recipes
by Peter Mayle
Buy this book at Barbes & Noble


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